It's time for a budget gimmick. Seriously. The best way -- maybe the only way -- to avert a crisis over the debt limit in the next several weeks is for both parties to adopt a shameless gimmick that will postpone serious deficit reduction now but make it increasingly difficult to avoid later.
In almost any other circumstance, this would be an irresponsible punt. Far better would be to reach a real deficit-reduction deal along the lines of proposals by the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission or the Bipartisan Policy Center. Such a bargain would phase in significant spending cuts in all the big pieces of the budget while raising revenues by cutting back on tax expenditures such as the home mortgage interest deduction. It would be big, balanced and bipartisan.
And maybe pigs will fly too.
Really, the two parties are about as polarized on taxes and entitlements as they've ever been, and the idea that they could reach a substantive deal in time to attach it to a debt-limit bill in May or June strains credulity. The problem isn't the deal -- any responsible adult in Washington with basic budget literacy could sketch it on the back of a napkin. It's getting a majority of Congress to accept reality. Budget negotiations in the 1980s and the 1990s – and the Simpson-Bowles talks last year – showed that it takes many months for members to adjust to the idea that there's just no other way out of the box. We don’t have months.
With the debt limit a few weeks away and limited fudge time available after that, members need something to give them cover. Best would be a good-sized "down payment" package with spending cuts and revenue increases, but Republicans won't accept tax increases, and Democrats won't take a deal that is spending cuts only. Stalemate.
This is similar to where the parties were in 1985, when they adopted the notorious Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit targets. Then, Congress had to raise the debt limit from $1.8 trillion to $2.1 trillion. Seems quaint, doesn't it? Today the debt limit is $14.3 trillion.
But Gramm-Rudman (Hollings later renounced it as a sham) got Congress past the debt limit vote by setting tough deficit targets that made Congress appear serious about the problem. Missing the targets required automatic spending cuts so deep that they mostly never took effect. Instead, Congress fudged the numbers and postponed the cuts until, five years later, it simply became too embarrassing to keep doing that. In 1990, an election year, the repeated failure to meet Gramm-Rudman targets helped create a real budget summit that produced a real budget deal.
There are several trigger proposals available right now. Obama’s is probably the weakest, since it postpones any action until 2014 and exempts Social Security, Medicare and low-income programs from automatic cuts. Understandable impulse, but the mechanism has to be truly awful to force real negotiation. In 1985, Democrats got President Reagan’s attention by making defense subject to the Gramm-Rudman cuts. It was, said then-House Majority Whip Tom Foley, D-Wash., like "kidnapping the only child of the president's official family that he loves and holding it in a dark basement and sending the president its ear."
Today’s better idea comes from former congressmen and budget veterans Charlie Stenholm and Bill Frenzel, whose trigger would spare no part of the budget and order tax increases, too, if the debt target was missed – sending a lot of ears to Congress. That, plus keeping Congress on a tight leash by extending the debt limit only 6 to 9 months to force negotiations might work at least as well as Gramm Rudman did. Or a lot better, we’d hope, since we don’t have five years to get to a real negotiation.
George Hager is a member of the USA Today editorial board.
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